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Steve Aschburner

Flip Saunders Glen Taylor
Wolves owner Glen Taylor, right, is hopeful that Flip Saunders can guide the team back into contention.

A blast from Wolves' past, Saunders takes on new challenge


Posted Aug 20, 2013 8:59 AM

This is the latest in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2013-14. For a look at other teams in the series, click here.

As busy as he's been, as productive as his work has turned out in his first summer as the Minnesota Timberwolves' new president of basketball operations, it's no wonder that Flip Saunders is excited for the opening of the team's 2013-14 training camp.

At which point, he'll hand the keys to this intriguing roster to Rick Adelman and watch the veteran NBA head coach slip into the driver's seat.

For a career coach -- someone who worked 17 seasons on NBA sidelines for three different franchises, registering a 638-526 record and 11 playoff appearances -- it might be tough for Saunders to buy the Ferrari, choose the options and then ride shotgun while someone else has the hands-on fun.

But it's the life he has chosen.

"It'd be a little different if I had coached last year, but being in the role [as a studio analyst] at ESPN, I was pretty comfortable there," Saunders said in a phone interview last week. "My communication with Rick has been top-notch in talking basketball. When we go at each other, it's almost like we're having a coaching clinic. Things I've done in the past with [Jeff] Van Gundy or Doc Rivers and we're just talking basketball for two or three days away in a hotel."

For the record, Saunders and Adelman (1,002 career wins) rank No. 1 among NBA coach-and-chief executive tandems in victory totals with 1,640. Miami's Pat Riley (1,210) and Erik Spoelstra (260) are next with 1,470. Indiana's Larry Bird (147) and Frank Vogel (111) have 258 combined, and Boston's Danny Ainge (136) is waiting for new hire Brad Stevens to add to their total. (For our purposes here, we won't count Gregg Popovich's 905 victories twice for his dual titles as San Antonio's coach and president.)

"I really believe, as Rick says, that he's going to be very open on suggestions," Saunders said. "Y'know, I'm not going to coach the team but he's going to have another eye there to help him out. I have an understanding of how he wants to play and sometimes I might be able to help him see things that maybe they all don't see right away.

"I don't see it being a problem. ... And from my point of view, I'll be able to learn some things. In this business, whether you're a coach or a general manager or president or player or anybody, if you're not learning every day, then you're not getting better."

The Wolves at least seem to be doing that. By re-signing restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic to a five-year, $60 million deal, they punctuated a summer marked by the acquisition of Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf, which adds to a core that, but for injuries, might have chased a .500 finish in 2012-13.

That's been a long time coming, unsniffed during the four years that David Kahn spent most recently in Saunders' position. When owner Glen Taylor brought back the former Wolves coach in this executive capacity, he was reaching back to the franchise's brightest days.

Remember, while it's true that Minnesota hasn't reached the postseason since trading Kevin Garnett in July 2007, their swoon to lottery status began soon after Taylor fired Saunders in February 2005.

Now he's back. Just not to drive.

Where they've been

Eight straight playoff appearances (1997-2004) have been followed by nine consecutive years missing the postseason. The Wolves have changed coaches six times during the drought, with Adelman's first two seasons suffering initially from the talent base, followed quickly by injuries.

Two seasons ago, they felt they were on pace -- until Rubio went down with torn knee ligaments. The injury and rehab gouged holes in two seasons, and guys such as Pekovic, Chase Budinger and Andrei Kirilenko spent significant time on the side (the Brandon Roy comeback endeavor never stood a chance). But losing Love twice with a broken right hand torpedoed 2012-13 most of all.

Adelman at least got the healthiest Wolves to play harder defensively; their defensive rating was the best in seven years. But they were abysmal shooters, particularly from 3-point range, and showed way too little of the ball- and player-movement his offenses typically exhibit.

Where they are now

Even Adelman missed 11 games in the injury-riddled season, dealing with his wife Mary Kay's perplexing seizures. There was some question whether he would return for the third of the four seasons on his deal, but as her status has improved, the lure of this group has called more loudly to him.

In Rubio, Love and Pekovic, Minnesota has what Saunders considers its necessary (for lofty playoff ambitions) core of three stars; as the Wolves' basketball boss defines that, it means players who rank among the top five at their positions. There might be some quibbling on Rubio and Pekovic, but if all three are healthy, they check a lot of boxes for the Wolves, especially on one end.

"When you look at [Pekovic] and Ricky and Kevin and the other players like Kevin Martin, the one thing I said, 'I know Coach Adelman and the way he calls plays, and they don't overlap,' " Saunders said. "What I mean by that is the space they take up, they don't overlap each other. Pek's got his space down there and not too many guys are going to get around him, and same thing with Ricky and what he does, and Kevin on the perimeter and Kevin Martin moving without the ball. That gives you the opportunity offensively."

Brewer is a wing who plays fast and can handle heavy defensive chores. Rookie big Gorgui Dieng should get time solely due to his defense. Budinger, like Martin, is an Adelman devotee. Rookie Shabazz Muhammad and third-year forward Derrick Williams might cause headaches but, barring the rotten injury luck of last season, the roster is deep enough to limit the minutes of those who don't help.

Biggest hurdle

This is a pivotal season for Love, mostly in terms of his reputation. His disconnect with Kahn is a thing of the past. Any grudge he harbored over the Wolves' refusal to give a fifth year in his January 2012 extension needs to be set aside, too. He was the only NBA guy on the USA squad at the London Olympics who never had sampled the playoffs, and that's going to start sticking to him soon.

Last season was a washout. His hand fractures cost him games, the opportunity to build on his All-Star resume and at least some portion of his following in the Twin Cities because when he did play (just 18 games) he wasn't the same player (35.2 field-goal percentage, defensive lapses).

Saunders said last week that Love is getting in great shape for 2013-14 and is primed for a playoff type of season. That's good, because his 2015 opt-out will be only as big a topic of conversation as Love allows it to be.

Where they're going

Not to go Jim Mora on this offseason assessment, but if the Wolves are serious about the playoffs (playoffs?!), they'd better know history and get to work. Over the past five years, the average winning percentage of the West's No. 8 seed has been .570. The least of those was Utah's .545 in 2012. And this is Minnesota we're talking about, which hasn't topped .400 since 2005-06.

Still, the pieces are in place, Rubio is ready to take his game to a new level, and Love can help immensely just by repeating his post-lockout play.

After the top six in the West, a handful of teams -- the Lakers, the Nuggets, the Mavericks, the Trail Blazers and the Wolves -- likely will be vying for the final two spots. None of them faces a bigger leap, from last year's standings and from recent history, than Minnesota. But it's a reasonable goal for an entertaining team.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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